In the world of choreographer Mark Morris, live music is key

PLAYING IN THE GARDEN: "Empire Garden," which premiered last year at Tanglewood, is danced to a Charles Ives trio.
PLAYING IN THE GARDEN: "Empire Garden," which premiered last year at Tanglewood, is danced to a Charles Ives trio. (Mark Morris Dance Group)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010

At least on this tour, the cello doesn't need a plane ticket.

When the Mark Morris Dance Group has its one-night-only performance Saturday at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, five musicians will have traveled along with the dancers to Fairfax from the company's headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. By bus.

That was the easy part. Hotel arrangements were a touch more complicated: The violinists' rooms had to be far from Morris's, so they could rehearse in the early morning while he had some quiet.

Saturday's lunch at the theater will have to be staged in two waves: midday for the musicians, who will eat after their sound check, and later for the dancers, who'll dine following their afternoon class.

Oh, and did somebody find a page-turner for the pianist?

This is what you have to think about when you're that rare gem in the dance world: a company that performs to live music -- with its own musicians, even on tour. When Morris's troupe traveled to Russia in March, the basses could be checked as baggage, but the group had to purchase extra passenger tickets for the three cellos. (The cellos could not be seated in the emergency rows, but they did accrue frequent-flier miles.) Violas were stowed in the overhead compartments -- but one didn't fit, and a flight attendant had to be persuaded to store it in a closet reserved for the crew.

Morris's extraordinary commitment to live music comes at a cost. But it transforms his performances and enriches the experience immeasurably. If you're a dance fan, and especially if you're a patron of modern dance, you have no doubt endured punishing sound systems and unpleasant volume levels in even the best theaters -- not to mention the flat, cold sound quality you get from even the finest large-scale amplification of canned music.

Live music is wildly expensive, inconvenient and an organizational hassle.

All worth it, says Morris. Recorded music is phony. Dead.

"Doctored and fixed and repaired," he adds, dismissively.

"Why would I expect the music not to be alive when the dancers are alive and the audience is alive?" he asked earlier this week in Brooklyn, seated in his office overlooking a rainy Flatbush Avenue. There's merriment in his pale blue eyes, even paler than the silvery hair curling at his temples.

The five-story Mark Morris Dance Center is an oasis of serene white walls, pale wood floors and natural light, where the company rehearses and classes are offered to the community. But his office is a party: The walls are a dazzling lime green. Wooden carnival masks gape down at us. There's a gleaming tub in the adjacent bathroom, ringed invitingly with rubber duckies. This is the domain of a man with exuberant appetites -- for color, richness and fun.

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